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Conceptualizing Digital Stress in Adolescents and Young Adults: Toward the Development of an Empirically Based Model

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Existing literature provides a complicated picture of the relationship between digital media use and psychological outcomes. Both correlational and some experimental studies suggest that social media use specifically can be associated with diminished psychological functioning in adolescents and young adults. However, these effect sizes are not large, and must be considered in light of studies that suggest some positive outcomes associated with some uses of digital media, and a range of moderators of the identified associations. Although a growing body of evidence suggests that digital stress may be an important intervening factor between digital media use and psychosocial outcomes, this literature is complicated by multiple nomenclatures for similar or identical constructs. Our review of the literature suggests four potentially related components of digital stress, including availability stress, approval anxiety, fear of missing out, and communication overload. This conceptualization is consistent with recent published frameworks for understanding digital media’s influence on peer relationships. Clinicians working with adolescents and young adults are encouraged to assess digital media use in the context of clients’ overall psychological and social functioning, and in consideration of clients’ specific uses of media. Future research is needed to examine the associations among components of digital stress and clinical outcomes, and to provide valid measures to assess digital stress in research and clinical settings.

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Correspondence to Ric G. Steele.

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Steele, R.G., Hall, J.A. & Christofferson, J.L. Conceptualizing Digital Stress in Adolescents and Young Adults: Toward the Development of an Empirically Based Model. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev 23, 15–26 (2020).

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